It’s my fourth visit to Gratitude, and I just can’t give voice to the menu’s positive affirmations one more time. Instead of saying, I’ll have the Elated and the Magical, I simply ask our bubbly server for the enchiladas and the double burger. It feels Silly using the menu’s dish names. ¶ Open since February, this gourmet organic-vegan newbie is the most boho-fabulous Gratitude venue yet, and the first in Orange County. Long a category pioneer, Café Gratitude and parent company Love Serve Remember, LLC are showing love for their five next-gen operations in our sunny half of the state, after closing five Bay Area locations. Matthew and Terces Engelhart, the creators of Café Gratitude, dive deep on matters of “aliveness,” promoting a lifestyle through cookbooks, cleanse plans, workshops, retreats, day planners—even a board game, Abounding River.
Whew. I’m feeling fortunate my agenda is so modest. I’m here merely to explore the flavor-driven cuisine of chef Dreux Ellis and sample organic cocktails by L.A. star bartender Jason Eisner. Menus are loaded with options, descriptions, and tasting notes, doubtless ensuring repeat visits for curious diners and devout vegans. Abundant, a Sicilian antipasto spread with silky caponata, chunky tapenade, pickled vegetables, arugula salad, creamy macadamia nut cheese, and gluten-free sourdough slices, makes a no-brainer opener for a four-top of first-timers. The platter empties quickly, thanks to portions better suited to a twosome. Glasses of Sam Smith stout and Mendocino sauvignon blanc outlast the nibbles, but nothing outshines Oh Snap!—a luminous gin drink with house-made snap pea cordial that won’t reappear until pea season. Right now, the house caipirinha with Brazilian rum and citrus oil is a tangy alternative, with its rock-candy swizzle stick for tweaking the drink’s sweetness.
The wide array of small plates makes for an easy overview of Gratitude’s flavors and techniques. My top choice, and a dish I would happily reorder, is Dynamic, two yam- and cauliflower-filled samosas, imbued with chana masala spice and wrapped in gluten-free dough with a crumbly texture. Spicy tomato jam on top and a bed of stewed chickpeas with coconut-mint chutney push this dish to the top. I can see why vegans might adore Brilliant, flavors of ceviche in a martini glass, with silky curls of coconut meat standing in for fish or calamari. Avocado and tomatillos pump up the Mexican notes, but the dainty tostada chips lack the greasy gusto of fresh fried chips most ceviche fanatics demand. Eggplant, marinated tempeh, and the essence of orange skin combine in Welcoming, two loosely packed meatballs that while luscious and mildly savory, taste little like meatballs. But when lavished with sprightly marinara sauce and a dollop of cashew ricotta, they’re quite likable in Bella, a lunch menu sandwich on ciabatta bread.
Ultra-fresh salads are, well, salads featuring organic produce harvested daily from Alegría Fresh in Irvine. Despite non-green items such as grapefruit segments, chopped almonds, and kimchi, the Infinite eats like a boundless serving of bouncy kale. Another, called Dazzling, is the $18 diva salad here, starring “the sexy seven” kale varietals, with avocado, wakame (seaweed), brazil nut parmesan, and gluten-free croutons. Ellis injects just enough umami notes to make this an enjoyable facsimile of a Caesar. Anchovy-free, of course.
Dinner offers plenty of lusty dishes sure to interest a varied swath of diners, no matter what their dietary orthodoxy: ravioli, enchiladas, ramen, lasagna, even a double burger. Alas, one evening’s spring herb and ricotta ravioli is so overpowered by green aromatics it verges on botanical, tasting faintly medicinal. Happily, a plate of green mole-cloaked enchiladas packed with seasoned pinto beans, cashew sour cream, sweet summer corn, and roasted tomatillos is a winner, made even more appealing with a side of chewy, nutty, wild rice salad. I later learn it’s a top seller. It seems a tad rebellious for a vegan kitchen to serve a burger and not call it a garden burger. So of course I try Magical, Gratitude’s “double-double,” a lofty, colorful stack of house-made black-bean patties, tomato, red onion, chipotle ketchup, greens, and cashew-macadamia cheddar on a matte brown gluten-free amaranth bun. This is the finest alterna-burger I’ve tasted—but please know my sample universe is marginal.
Desserts, many of which are gluten-free and all of which are vegan and classy, left this dessert maniac cold. Stunning, a fresh berry meringue affair, is lively and luscious enough to order again, but minus the leaden chocolate sauce.
Though I hear and read gripes about high prices at Gratitude, I must defend what I consider fair charges for such source-vetted and labor-intensive cuisine. The burger recipe alone requires a mind-bending list of ingredients, techniques, and sub-recipes. It takes enormous time and skill to replicate omnivore cuisine that will delight gourmet vegans. Skeptics should consult the restaurant’s Book of Knowledge, a 20-page bible listing each dish’s ingredients. Or access it on the website.
Frankly, I don’t care if Gratitude’s passionate focus on plant-based living boosts health, purifies souls, or saves the planet. But there is no doubt that this striking, polished newcomer serves some tasty, deeply considered food and drink with finesse, in an enticing, welcoming setting. Vegans, this one’s for you. But I’ll be happy to meet in the bar for a drink.
1617 Westcliff Drive
Photos by Priscilla Iezzi